I’m off to a rockier start with this feature than I had initially planned, and I’m surprised I got it out on time. But I’m excited for what it is, ultimately, a change in philosophy to how I’m approaching single reviews this year. Anyway, this is the inaugural edition of the Boom-or-Bust Jukebox, in which I discuss the Radio Stars (new arrivals to Billboard’s top 40 Country Airplay chart), singles from artists on the Other Side (standalone singles and other oddities that catch my attention, for better or worse), and dedicate a review to a throwback tune. As always, and especially with the first edition of this series, if you have any feedback, I’m happy to hear it.
The Other Side
Hailey Whitters, “Fillin’ My Cup” (feat. Little Big Town) (written by Hailey Whitters, Nicolle Galyon, and Hillary Lindsey)
If you had told me that a country artist was planing to release a lightweight drinking song as a New Year’s treat, I admit, you likely would have lost me before you finished the sentence. But when it’s Hailey Whitters? Well, I’m certainly listening … and quite liking the switch from the spacier, scattershot tones of The Dream into this, a rollicking, organic, fun sing-a-long! Really, the problem with Whitters’ delivery has always come in the execution, but the addition of a jaunty fiddle line and slight saloon piano accents with a meatier production balance all around works remarkably well. Now, it is a pretty standard inspirational message of seeing the good in the bad, but what’s most notable is how straight-laced Whitters is selling it, where the understated, haggard delivery lends a loose amount of gravitas to the actual sentiment, especially with the implication that it’s meant to serve as a goodbye to 2020. Now, I’m not sure I would have recruited Little Big Town for this – especially when the two drinking songs on their last album made for its clunkiest moments – but there is something to be said for the camaraderie on display, too. As it is, fun stuff. I really like it. An honorable mention for our Boom of the week.
Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” (written by Rhett Akins and Parker McCollum)
And hey, speaking of surprises for the new year, we have this new single from Parker McCollum, hot off the heels of his first No. 1 single with “Pretty Heart,” too. Unlike Hailey Whitters’ new song, though, I’m not digging this surprise, and hope that this isn’t a clear indication of his next single over, say, something better in “Young Man’s Blues” or “Hallie Ray Light.” I mean, I didn’t like “Pretty Heart,” but at least the minor arrangement suited him better than this, which finds him playing mostly to his upper range and struggling along the way. And that’s before mentioning that, on production and instrumentation alone, there’s always something to appreciate about a fairly organic drum and guitar balance, but not when it lacks a real amount of punch and just lingers in the background as, well, background music, at best. Sadly, the writing only drags this further beyond pure mediocrity, which finds a partner whining about his significant other’s response to a clear falling out in their relationship, yet finds him taking absolutely zero responsibility for any sort of role he might have played in it. Now, I do get framing it as him trying to break through those walls, but there’s a difference between a more complex examination of that and this, which is just whiny and unlikable. In other words, even as for as much as I disliked “Pretty Heart,” I could see the appeal for it; I can’t say the same here.
Trey Lewis, “Dicked Down in Dallas” (written by Brent Gafford, Matt McKinney, and Drew Trosclair)
Well, might as well address this fast and hope it fades away soon. Because, really, for as much viral attention as TikTok smashes have received from the music industry in general lately, it hasn’t sparked any new talent beyond one-hit wonders who probably didn’t even deserve that. Which is a fitting segue into this song, an inside joke between Nashville songwriters that Trey Lewis just so happened to cut, with the immediate defense for it pointing toward its “humor.” Right, because a song built upon slut-shaming, assumptions of daddy issues, a hook that lives for alliteration and little else, a generally sour production balance and just all-around pissy attitude is super fun to hear; I’d rather stick with the Hot Country Knights, thank you. Granted, the lack of subtlety is the point, and I’m not against the idea of an “honest” perspective, given how otherwise puritanical Nashville can be about these things, even despite that contradicting some of the main motifs within country music as a whole. But there’s nothing pleasant about this, especially when it’s sold with the sort of angry, flippant attitude that sounds like it’s being sold from a dour douchebag (hey, alliteration is fun!) who’s absolutely miserable and looking to just take cheap shots at his ex-significant other. Fitting, too, that the production mostly pulls from the same watered-down country-rock palette that became popular around the turn of the last decade, back when Brantley Gilbert began to make his mark and people still cared about Jason Aldean. It’s not bro-country and it’s not boyfriend country; it’s just an ugly song that should die swiftly into the new year, and is easily this week’s Bust.
Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, “Will You” (written by Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno)
As I said in a recent post, new releases for 2021 are looking incredibly light right now. Sure, there are a few high-profile releases right now, but I’m not too excited to talk about Morgan Wallen or Florida Georgia Line anytime soon. As always, though, if you want the good stuff these days, you have to dig a little deeper. So while it may not be the most high-profile release of the year so far, I’ve got my eye on the self-titled release from Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, both of whom have worked together before in various groups and on projects, but never to the actual degree of “sharing the spotlight,” so to say. And lead single “Will You” is the sort of straightforward, easygoing country tune that doesn’t require a lot of words for it. There’s a rich, firm, understated poise to the fiddle and acoustic interplay that, sure, might sound a bit too rough-around-the-edges for its own good and isn’t precisely groundbreaking in its composition. But when the actual mix is this well-balanced, a simplistic focus on melody works. And I like how Leva opens right away with an admission of guilt over her cheating and lets the ensuing focus linger on a theme of forgiveness she knows she doesn’t deserve, all while questioning if her significant other’s love for her is enough to help them hold on, or help her, at least. It’s a complex emotional balance, where the subtext hints at deeper problems between them, but seeks to find clarity and salvage what may be left, too. I wish Calcagno had a more pronounced role in this, if only to offer that other perspective and add a deeper layer to the story, especially with the dual focus of the eventual album. As it is, though, it’s easily this week’s Boom.
Now, our new arrivals for this week are short, given the holiday slowdown. So short, in fact, that we’re only discussing one single (since I’d like to exclude a Dan + Shay Christmas single review – y’all will let me have that, right?)
No. 39 – Kane Brown, “Worship You” (written by Kane Brown, Matt McGinn, Alexander Izquierdo, and Ryan Vojtesak)
Don’t y’all think this boyfriend bit has done got out of hand? Granted, I wasn’t expecting something this sickly sweet and generic coming from Kane Brown, of all artists, who’s shifted away from competing with the likes of Luke Combs to just blending in with the rest of the crowd. None of his singles post-Experiment have been terribly interesting or memorable, and this may be his most boring offering yet, a boilerplate boyfriend-country song that checks off every box. It’s subdued to the point of being dour, and when this song does find a pulse, it’s only from a slick-sounding drum machine that offers no flavor whatsoever and only reminds listeners of the overusage of reverb as a whole, especially to lather the few uses of pedal steel here. And you’d think one wouldn’t want that dark of a sound for a song about literally worshiping a love interest … to the point of bringing in questionable debates over religion and the God paradigm in the actual framing of its obsession, just as Brown did on “Worldwide Beautiful,” and wow, I really shouldn’t be overthinking a Kane Brown song like this. I’d like to think something this boring and mediocre couldn’t become a hit, but I know better than that, sadly.
Now, let’s throw it back to some good pop-country, shall we? Today, I’m rewinding the clock to review the No. 1 single on this date, from 1971.
Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden” (written by Joe South)
Funnily enough, I’ve already written about this song for my ‘Pop Goes The Country’ series. But it’s fitting to revisit now, too – a song speaking to expectations two partners have for each other within a relationship, and how overthinking said expectations can make it all crumble before it even begins, which is a sobering realization to encounter when, as we’ve hopefully learned from last year, there’s joy in the slow-riding mundanity. I love the bright-eyed optimism and realism in the framing, too, alluding to how, if they stick it out together through the thick and thin, they could craft their own brand of unique happiness and maybe build that rose garden together. And if they don’t, it’s too much blame to assign to one person anyway. Coupled with a huge hook and bouncy rollick that’s among the best of its era, it’s a classic that earns its title.